Søren Schmidt writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
Syria is neither Egypt nor Libya – and the conflict can therefore not be solved as it was in Egypt and Libya respectively.
The conflict in Syria worsens with each day that passes, and by now more than 20,000 people have been killed. At the same time, the parties are more keenly opposed than ever. The regime will have to go in the long run, but nobody knows how to get rid of it and get started on a democracy.
In Egypt, Mubarak was defeated by the mobilization of large masses of people demonstrating in Tahrir Square. In the confrontation between the regime and the masses of people, it was the regime that blinked first. The military quite simply did not have the stomach to beat back so many people, and in one fell swoop the regime’s authority vanished.
In Libya, Gaddafi was so isolated in his own country that the Libyans were able to defeat him militarily with a little help from the West.
But neither of these solutions can be applied in Syria, for two reasons.
First of all, the situation in Syria is a proper civil war between the country’s Sunni majority (65%) and the Alawi minority (10%) that the Assad clan belongs to; while the remaining minorities (Christians, Druze, Kurds and Shia: 25%) either support the regime or keep themselves on the sidelines. Since the conflict can not be described, as it was in Egypt or Libya, only as a conflict between the regime and the people, but also between two parties, each of which represents an important social force, the opposition is not able to challenge the regime through mass mobilization.
The close cooperation between the Syrian opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Saudi-Arabia has only worsened the problem and reinforced the Alawites perception that they are fighting with their backs to the wall. Add to this that the opposition has not been receptive to the desire of the Syrian Kurds to have their particular non-Arabic identity respected and, finally, that the opposition has failed to formulate a policy that would rally the urban middle class to its cause. Therefore mass mobilization will not be what topples the regime in Damascus.
The alternative to mass mobilization is a long, arduous fight to defeat the regime by military means. However, without outside help this will become a lengthy affair, since the regime has significant resources and a strong will to fight back. An external intervention force would also most probably have to count on being attacked by Alawite militias, while at the same time having to defeat the regime’s forces.
But that is not all: Syria is an important link in the so-called resistance alliance, which in addition to Syria consists of Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah in a deterrence alliance against Israel. Syria’s alliance partners will therefore do whatever they can to prevent pro-Israel, Western powers from taking out an important link in this alliance.
The diplomatic ad hos group of countries, the so-called “Friends of Syria,” – did not want participation by Iran, and has instead embraced traditional foes of Iran like Saudi-Arabia and Qatar. This has, naturally, reinforced the Iranian perception that the fight against Assad is also a fight against Iran. While the West sees the fight against Assad as a fight for democracy, the Iranian regime see it rather as a geo-political fight against them. For this reason, a military solution cannot break the Gordian knot either. At least not without laying most of Syria waste in the process.
In this situation there seem to be two possibilities. Either the parties can continue the current civil war, and when exhausted eventually, perhaps many years hence, agree that a compromise would be better – or they can reach that same compromise now, before the destruction becomes more extensive, the number of dead increases further and the sectarian hatred becomes too entrenched.
However, this will demand some new thinking:
First of all, the Alawites (and the other minorities) must have guarantees that the fall of the regime will not be at their expense. Words and paper are easy, but the only actor who may credibly guarantee that minority interests will be secured after the fall of Assad is the Syrian military. Not the civilian security apparatus, but the part of the Syrian Army that still sees itself as a national institution and not just as an extension of the regime. The Syrian military should therefore be a party to any agreement concerning a transition from the present to a new government (as was also the case in Egypt and in Tunisia whose militaries also played an instrumental role in the transition). The only influence on the military apart from the present regime is Iran (and to some degree Russia).
Secondly, the West has to distance itself from the regional conflict between Iran and Israel, which has as its root cause that the Israelis continue to relate to their neighbors by means of military domination rather than finding a solution that all parties can live with. Said in another way: Israel has yet to accept the establishment of an independent and viable Palestinian state. As long as that remains the case, Israel will be seen as an enemy by Hamas and Hezbollah, which Iran for its part will insist on supporting. But there is nothing forcing the West to be hitched to the Israeli wagon in the conflict with Iran. After all, the West wants democratization in the Middle East and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. The conflict between Israel and Iran ought therefore not to be allowed to hinder the inclusion of Iran in the attempt to find a solution for Syria.
The Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsi, has recently suggested that Egypt, Turkey, Saudi-Arabia and Iran get together to find a solution to the Syrian tragedy. The West ought to support Morsi’s initiative and replace romantic, revolutionary notions with a pragmatic approach to the Syrian people’s wish for democracy, and at the same time decouple its policy from Israel’s self-inflicted conflicts with its regional neighbors.
Søren Schmidt is Associate Professor at Aalborg University in Denmark